No more involvement of political parties in appointment of civil servants
Members of political parties in European countries are rarely – if ever – rewarded with a position in public office for proven service to the party any more. Political parties also have very little influence in appointments. This was the argument put forward by political scientist Petr Kopecký in his inaugural lecture on 21 May. The most important cause of this is the erosion of political parties themselves.
One of the things the EU was afraid of, upon the entry of new Central and Eastern European democracies in the 90s, was the involvement of political parties in the appointment of civil servants and the favouring of loyal party members. In short: party patronage. A forceful EU law was duly passed in order to prevent this from happening. Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair instigated reforms in his country in order to avoid such practices.
Party patronage has a bad name. It not only reeks of corruption, like all nepotism, but also points to the absence of a separation of politics and civil service. Civil servants, after all, should be politically neutral.
However, the fear was without foundation in both cases, says Kopecký. Both the EU and Blair could have saved themselves the trouble of composing these regulations. Kopecký headed a research project on party patronage in 14 European democracies. He established that ministers and other decision makers acted autonomously, without their political parties having a say in the matter.
In the appointment of civil servants in Europe professional suitability is nearly always at the top of the list, the research showed. Still there are forms of patronage involved in appointments. But this patronage takes place in the personal networks of ministers, for example. If sympathies for a political party play a role here – which is the case 70% of the time – then this is mainly because the minister wants to stay in control of the party, and not because party members are favoured or exercise their influence.
The opposite is in fact more likely: a person appointed by a minister subsequently becomes an important face within the party. In this manner parties are nowadays reformed from above, rather than from below, as they were in the past. The most important factor for the disappearance of party patronage is, then, the erosion of the political parties themselves, that of parties that come into being from the bottom up, so to speak, which represent a grassroots movement in society. A second factor is the increase in media focus on the appointment process.
There are still exceptions. In Greece, active party members are still favoured for positions in all layers of public office. In Austria this was also the case until recently, but now it has become outdated. The Netherlands too is an interesting case, Kopecký said in his inaugural lecture. In every faction within the House of Commons (Tweede Kamer) a party lobbyist keeps a close watch on which positions are free in the civil service. A type of party filter is still in operation here, then.
Even so, Dutch political parties do not differ greatly from parties in other European countries, Kopecký holds. ‘The phenomenon is probably a result of the way Dutch political parties organised themselves throughout history. It remains to be seen whether the lobbyist is even effective. That is something I would like to further look into.’
About Petr Kopecký
Kopecký is a professor of Political Science. He studied economics at the University of Economics in Prague and political science at the University of Manchester. He obtained his doctoral degree at Leiden University. He was an academic member of staff at the University of Sheffield and a Visiting Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg, and the Ghana Centre for Democratic Development in Accra. His research interests lie in the area of political parties and party systems in modern democracies. His most recent research project focuses on party patronage as one of the most important ways in which parties can exploit the state in aid of their own development and organisational survival. Other research interests include comparative (East) European politics, democratisation, comparative political institutions, legislative behaviour and community-based organisations. He is co-editor of East European Politics.
- Political Science
- Political Science and Public Administration (research)
- International Relations and Diplomacy
‘Political legitimacy’ is an interdisciplinary focus area within the Univesity-wide profile theme of Law, Democracy and Governance
(21 June 2012)